Nov. 3, 2011Vol. 42, Issue 2

Little Known Episode in John Bidwell’s History: Thwarting the 1851 Federal Indian Treaty

By Michele Shover, professor emerita, Political Science

In mid-August of that year, 200 members from Mountain and Foothill Maidu tribelets as well as 100 or so Valley Maidus gathered on the ranch at Bidwell’s request to consider a federal treaty. They moved back and forth from their tree-sheltered encampments, scattered to avoid old enemies but close enough to meet with friends. At large campfires, the Mechoopda Maidus roasted slabs of government beef, which rewarded each arriving group. The amount of beef would later become an issue.

While some Mountain Maidus were reluctant to enter rival Maidu turf without protection, their curiosity prevailed. They recalled many tribal “Big Times” there for trade with the Mechoopdas. Of course, when the best bow maker or other artisan was one of their own, they had held the get-togethers. But when a Valley Indian was the master builder, the advantage shifted and Mountain Indians became guests. According to Bidwell, such trading events took place at intervals of years, and when they concluded, the mountain and valley tribelets parted as enemies. In Bidwell’s time, the Mountain Maidus likely made surreptitious night visits to take a look at Bidwell’s ranch or for secret meetings with willing Mechoopdas. While Bidwell understood the land as his property, the tribelets at large still considered it, rightfully at least, as the Maidu territory of their Mechoopda tribelet.

Emma Cooper, the Maidu woman whose oral history provided the core information about Bidwell's treaty with the Mechoopdas. The Indians, many of whom had arrived at Bidwell’s place about three weeks earlier than he expected them, set up camps in heavy groves across from his log house and the long shed, his stable and tack room. The visitors took a keen interest in the ranch’s new “saltbox”-style store with its “hotel” of several rooms above and the clapboard-sided bunkhouse where Bidwell housed “the Indian boys” who joined his vaqueros. Their elders had worked for John Potter, the area’s pioneer who had a substantial cattle operation which ran south from Big Chico Creek along both sides of the Oroville-Shasta Road. From Bidwell the young men learned how to work on field and row crops, and they had put in the rancher’s first orchards and some grape vines during the previous spring. Their elders were posted at the borders of grain fields with orders to keep out the cattle. The young men’s bunkhouse not only presented a considerable contrast to the older families’ bark huts, but it pointed to Bidwell’s separation of the male laborers from their families. In other respects, he respected their culture.

From their tree-shaded campsites, the Mountain Maidus could also assess the Mechoopdas’ situation. The Valley tribelet had agreed to work on Bidwell’s terms. They had nowhere they could go and they gained access to his resources, including added protection from their mountain rivals. This situation intrigued the more warlike mountain tribe. How could they drive off this rancher or tap his resources or find a way to restore their access to the valley? Now that they were at Bidwell’s headquarters, they also could communicate with the Mechoopdas to compare ideas.

While the Indians’ activities intrigued onlookers, the drama of Treaty Commissioner Oliver Wozencraft’s arrival conveyed command. Accompanying him were “gentlemanly and efficient” Army officers and 50 mounted infantry with a train of heavily laden packhorses enveloped in a rolling wall of dust. While Wozencraft’s mission was difficult, he had reason for confidence because he had negotiated signed treaties with other tribes. While he was at Bidwell’s rancho, the San Francisco Alta declared “the reservations must be made where the Indians at present reside … and that has been the course of the commissioners.”

Michele Shover with her husband, Don Lillibridge, professor emeritus, Department of History, and author of Images from a Long Life and Images of American History. As he slowed to dismount, Wozencraft noted the hundreds of Indians who took his measure in turn. By contrast to treaty meetings where a few tribesmen had shown up, Bidwell had organized an impressive turnout. As Wozencraft moved through the crowd with Bidwell “doing the honors,” he was impressed by the mix of valley headmen or “captains” and those of the mountain tribelets. The latter were difficult to assemble, most at risk and most dangerous to settlers. He explained later the Mountain and Foothill Maidus lived in small groups and were “generally at war with one another.”  Hence, “they were very distrustful when it is attempted to bring them together.”

The treaty commissioner found Bidwell had anticipated his needs. Because the Native people would find it hard to understand the terms of a legal document, he had his carpenter build a lectern to draw a common focus. This podium’s image entered into the Mechoopdas’ oral history. In addition, Bidwell provided interpreters. One, Rafael, about 12, was the young boy he had “adopted” from a tribelet and trained as his personal assistant. The second interpreter, Napani, was about 9. She was a daughter of Mechoopda Headman Luc-a-yan, whom a settler woman described as “a man of superior ability, dignity and fine disposition.” She thought he resembled “a bronze statue.”

Top photo: John Bidwell in his 30s, which he would have been at the time of the treaty negotiations. Right photo:Emma Cooper, the Maidu woman whose oral history provided the core information about Bidwell's treaty with the Mechoopdas. Left photo: Michele Shover with her husband, Don Lillibridge, professor emeritus, Department of History, and author of Images from a Long Life and Images of American History. The ranch was organized for the meeting, the Indians were in place, and Wozencraft was ready to lay out the treaty terms. Deliberations would follow a rocky course—as would the relationship between Wozencraft and Bidwell. In 1858 Bidwell would testify that Commissioner Wozencraft had instructed him to offer the Indians all the beef they wanted regardless of cost. His statement contradicted Wozencraft’s explicit instructions, however.  In an 1851 letter to Bidwell, Wozencraft referred to their common understanding that Bidwell should distribute beef to “keep the Indians pacified at the least cost to the government” and that his beef allocations “should be governed by necessity.” Bidwell also wanted Wozencraft to award him the lucrative contract to supply the beef, even though Wozencraft had already awarded it to someone else and wouldn’t go back on his word. Needless to say, Bidwell was not happy.

There is much more to the treaty story, but the end result was that Bidwell worked against the ratification of the treaty, and it failed to pass the California Legislature. California is one of the few states that did not establish a treaty with Indians. The consequences of this for the California Indians, especially the Mechoopda Maidu, is that many of them are still fighting to be recognized as a tribe, with the incumbent rights and privileges that accompany that recognition. In Butte County, the Mechoopda Maidu are in court to challenge Butte County’s effort to stop them from building a casino southeast of Chico.

Note: This is an excerpt from a chapter from a manuscript by Michele Shover, “The California Indian Wars on the Butte County Front, 1850-1865.” Shover, professor emerita, delivered the lecture at the Department of Political Science’s Faculty Forum on Oct. 21. The entire lecture can be found on the department’s website. Photo of Emma Cooper courtesy of Meriam Library, Special Collections.